A judge has ordered the Trump administration to provide more detailed information about businesses that received COVID-19 relief loans, ruling that the “powerful” public interest in disclosure “dramatically outweighs” privacy concerns.
The decision was a victory for media organizations that sued the Small Business Administration for access to data about roughly $600 billion in loans made under the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.
The SBA had agreed in July to identify PPP borrowers but provide only loan amount ranges for loans of more than $150,000 and provide the precise dollar amounts, but not identify the borrower, for loans of under $150,000. Of the PPP’s 5.2 million loans, roughly 4.5 million were for amounts of $150,000 or less, according to SBA data.
But U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled last week that the agency could not use exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to withhold the precise amounts of PPP loans of $150,000 or more, as well as the names and addresses of all those who borrowed less than that figure.
He also said the SBA must identify the recipients of all EIDL loans.
“The significant public interest in shedding light on SBA’s administration of the PPP and EIDL program dramatically outweighs any limited private interest in nondisclosure,” Boasberg wrote.
The PPP was the centerpiece of the federal government’s CARES Act efforts to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic, providing $525 billion in forgivable loans, but concerns over fraud have prompted lawmakers and consumer groups to call for heightened oversight of the program.
In opposing disclosure of the additional data, the SBA argued that it would violate the borrowing company’s privacy because PPP loans correspond to the size of a business’s payroll. But Boasberg noted that the loan application expressly notified potential borrowers that their names and loan amounts would be “automatically released” upon a FOIA request.
“SBA advances a series of arguments that essentially all reduce to the unavailing contention that the agency did not mean what the loan-application forms actually said,” he said.